2007-04-25 / Restaurant of the Week

S'Agapo

34-21 34th Avenue + Astoria 718.626.0303

S 'Agapo adds a gracious note to the corner of 34th Avenue and 35th Street in Astoria, adorned as it is with sparkling lights and shrubbery that surrounds the outdoor dining patio. Inside, tables are dressed in colorful spring linens and beautiful paintings and photos hang on the walls. The highlight of a visit to S'Agapo, which means "I love you" in Greek, is the traditional

cuisine of Crete, made with love by

owners Kosta and Barbara Lambrakis. The charming waiters, led by Socrates, tend to your every need in a professional and efficient manner, enhancing your dining experience.

The secret to the cuisine of Crete is to use only the freshest meat, fish and vegetables seasoned with the simplest of ingredients: fresh lemon, olive oil, and precious few herbs. The freshness of the flavors of that sunny island are right here, thanks to the Lambrakis couple, who produce their own olive oil in Crete for use in the restaurant, make their own Greek sausage, called loukaniko, and their own desserts, including Barbara's own phyllo dough. There is a complete bar, but we were quite happy with a carafe of the house red, which was dry and light and complemented the Mediterranean cuisine beautifully.

S'Agapo offers an extensive array of hot and cold appetizers, so many, indeed, that one could make an entire meal of these tempting dishes, each beautifully presented and served with warm triangles of pita bread. Kosta can be seen cooking in the open kitchen, just behind a glass case that displays a mouth-watering variety of fresh meat, poultry and whole fish. Start with a sampling of salads, each at around $5, including smoky eggplant dip called melizani and a variation on skordalia, a potato and garlic dip, here mixed with a puree of beets that lend a hint of sweetness and a deep pink color. Tender octopus, stewed with herbs and red wine, will melt in your mouth, and the dolmades, or stuffed grape leaves, are actually made on the premises and taste unlike any others you might have tried. Their home-style keftde, or Greek meatballs, are lightly spiced and scented with a hint of mint for extraordinary flavor. When we visited, they were served in a creamy lemon-egg soup named after the mythological Minotaur. Kosta prepared a special appetizer called sarikopita by twisting phyllo dough into a turban shape, filling it with a Cretan cheese, similar to ricotta, then drizzling it with honey. What a unique treat! Green salads get an infusion of flavor from chopped fresh herbs such as parsley, dill and mint. Lahanopoula salad gets its name from the Greek word for cabbage and combines shredded cabbage with lots of other crunchy vegetables and herbs and a delicious dressing that offers plenty to share ($8).

Some special dishes that evening included lamb stew with orzo pasta called youvetsi and rabbit stew. Vegetarian stuffed cabbage is just one of several vegetarian and vegan options for those eschewing meat or animal products. However, if you are of the carnivorous ilk, you will drool over the selection of aged New York steak, tiny lamb chops and shish kebabs in the refrigerated case, just waiting for a visit to the charcoal grill. Ribeye steaks are basted with fresh lemon and herbs to bring out even more flavor, and the baby lamb chops were perfectly cooked. Large, steel skewers hold huge chunks of leg of lamb, alternated with tomatoes, peppers and onions for a shish-ke-bab fit for a king ($16). Chicken ke-babs are made in similar fashion and all meat entrees come with one of S'Agapo's daily side dishes such as Kosta's irresistible rice and spinach.

It's no surprise that fish plays an important role in the Aegean diet. S'Agapo offers fresh porgy, barbounia (mullet) or red snapper basted in olive oil, lemon and herbs and grilled whole on the charcoal fire for maximum flavor. The grilled shrimp, seasoned with olive oil and sea salt and a squeeze of lemon, are equally flavorful. Try the sea scallops sautéed with fresh tomato, herbs and white wine ($22).

Barbara's home-style apple strudel is wonderful, especially since she makes phyllo dough on the premises for the flakiest crust ever. Her baklava and semolina are ambrosia; fit for the gods, so please save some room for dessert along with a cup of clove tea or freshly brewed coffee.

Lunch offers wonderful options, too, with beautiful wraps filled with S'Agapo's home-style sausage, grilled, marinated chicken breast or grilled pork filet ($7). There are hot entrees for lunch as well, such as the spaghetti Santorini made with shrimp, fresh tomato and creamy feta cheese. S'Agapo is not only a regular eatery for the many staff and crew members at nearby Kaufman Astoria Studios and the Museum of the Moving Image, it's always buzzing with friends and families from near and far. Warm weather allows for relaxing outdoor dining and valet parking is available.

S'Agapo is open seven days a week from noon to 11 p.m. Visa, MasterCard and Diners Club are accepted and orders can be packed up to go with you. After one visit to S'Agapo, you will say, "I love you too!

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